Good evening, Ladies, my name is Antonietta Cocchiaro and I want to thank the wonderful women volunteers of Radio Italiana 531 for asking me to speak with you this evening as we celebrate International Women’s Day. As volunteers for the radio, you bring joy to many people but especially the elderly who are at home, in retirement villages, and in nursing homes, so thank you for your dedicated service.
International Women’s Day is celebrated in many countries and it’s the day that we recognise the achievement of women throughout the centuries but also acknowledge the hardship they had to endure and for many women they are still enduring today. This year is special as in South Australia we celebrate 125 years that women were given the right to vote. This was a huge milestone considering that Italy and many other western counties did not grant women the right to vote until 1940s.
I want to also acknowledge that our journey has been long and hard in our endeavor to achieve gender equality and unfortunately today for some women equality, choice and participation still are elusive things. We a community of amazing women must not forget the women in Australia and around the world who continue to experience hardship and trauma.
Like many of you my life has had its challenges as well as its blessing. I was born in a very small Calabrian town called Placanica on the Ionic coast. Life was very difficult not only for its poverty but prior to my birth my sister died of typhoid fever. She was 16 years old and the apple of my mother’s eye. My mother was completely traumatized as you can imagine, so she made a vow to St Anthony that if she had another daughter she would call her Antonietta. I was born soon after and hence I’m Antonietta.
Two years later at the age of 35, my mother died of breast cancer. Dad had already migrated to Australia. My brother who was 16 years old, and I went to live with our aunties and their family in a one-room house. Although I was just a young child at the time and my family treated me with kindness the sadness and trauma of this experience has remained with me so much so that even now after all these years when I visit the old house I struggle to step in side.
The hardship continued when we come to South Australia. Like so many other migrants the first few years were very difficult. Our living quarters comprised of one room in a friends house and our kitchen was another friends garage. What we had, however was the great desire and determination to succeed in our new land. His Excellency the Governor Hieu Van Le when he was appointed as Lt Governor spoke about our invisible suitcase in which we carry our culture, beliefs, values, fears, joy and sadness. It is what we carry in our invisible suitcase that makes us who we are. So with my invisible suitcase I set out on my professional journey, as a teacher, deputy principal, principal, professional assistant to the CE, superintendent and regional director. One of the things I took out of my invisible suitcase and held tight against my chest was the strong and unbending belief that all children could learn no matter their background, and economic circumstances. This beliefs never waned in my 46 years in education.
On the whole my professional journey was reasonably peaceful. No doubt as a women, especially a non English Speaking background women I had to work twice as hard as men and perhaps even some women. There was a period in the Education Department when the women’s movement was at its strongest. Changes were implemented in girls’ education, changes that have made a difference to girls’ success and achievements. Strangely, however, there was also a sinister side to this surge called feminism. Let me give you an example. In the latter part of the 70s I was appointed as principal of Salisbury North West Junior Primary School. I was there a year when the school was designated to be a Class A school. This meant that the school had many challenges and difficulties and needed a super principal to run it. I was told I could apply for it and if I didn’t get I would be moved to another school. You can imagine how I felt. I had worked very hard in my first year facing many difficulties but with the help of my staff, we were overcoming them.
To my surprise I was told by several of my colleagues that I was never going to be appointed to the school as the so called ruling women in the department had already chosen who they wanted there and it wasn’t me. Even through a merit selection, I did not have a hope. I was mortified. I could not believe that the women who were supposed to support other women were planning to undermine the process to ensure the woman they wanted won the position. Then I thought I can’t let this happen. I’m a strong Calabresi girl; I’m not going to be push around like that. So I went into battle mode and not only did I win the battle, I won the war. With the help of the whole school community, I became the youngest female Class A principal appointed in South Australia. And the first non English speaking person to that position.
What I learnt from this experience was the importance of women supporting other women, to be united in our quest for total participation. We still have many adversities that we need to overcome and this will only be achieved if we work together and support one another. This negative behaviour of that group of women come to the attention of the shadow education minister at the time. So when his party won power, they set about dismantling the group and unfortunately the women’s movement which had achieved some great outcomes for girls was also impacted. Do you know that the Education Department in South Australia was established in 1875 and, to date, we have never had a women appointed to the position of Chief Executive? We had a policeman and now a lawyer but not a woman. This is an indictment considering that 70% of its employees are women. It is very hard to break that glass ceiling.
Choosing to have a career, a family and also to study to improve my qualifications had it many challenges. I had and still have a wonderful supportive husband and had in-laws that supported me by looking after my children when they were little and taking them to school when they were school age. This help was invaluable and for that I thank them from the bottom of my heart.
When I was 5 years old I made the decision to be a teacher. I wanted to make a difference. Education took me out of poverty and gave me many opportunities. It gave me the power to make choices and I want that for every child. I wanted to be in there getting my hands dirty and fighting for the most disadvantaged children we have in the state and fight I did. Some of my co-fighters are here tonight, my wonderful friends and professional colleagues.
I think Australia still has a way to go in supporting women with children to be part of the workforce. We are one of lowest western performing countries in this area. We need more women in politics if any of this is going to change and political parties need to address their internal structures that covertly and sometimes overtly make it hard and for some women almost impossible to be in the work force. As Michelle Obama said most eloquently, “No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contribution of half of its citizens.”
I’ve came to realise a long time ago the importance of gender equality, so I made certain that this passion was passed on to my children, my daughters and my son and now my granddaughter. I include my son, for I truly believe if we want to achieve structural gender equality, we must also bring the male population along with us. We need to think carefully about the messages we give the next generation and ensure that our action and words are not saying to them, girls are not as important as boys.
So on this International Women’s Day we celebrate and acknowledge the amazing women past and present who have made a difference to our world. And I am not talking about famous women only, but women like your mothers and grandmothers like my mother-in-law and my aunty who left their land of birth, their family, their friends to come to a strange country bringing with them just a suitcase. Many of them held two jobs, and at the same time looked after a husband and children. They had to overcome many obstacles but achieve they did with great strength and determination. They did it because they wanted to build a better life for their family. They are the heroes of this country so let us acknowledge them.
International Women’s Day, 8th March 2019